Tartine Owners Hire Notorious Crisis Flack to Fight Workers’ Unionization Efforts

Four days after workers at iconic San Francisco bakery Tartine announced an effort to unionize, its owners have responded. Management won’t voluntarily recognize its 200-plus-employee workforce’s right to organize, they said through a surprising spokesperson: Sam Singer, a longtime San Francisco crisis communications expert known for his work with controversial companies like Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery and issues like a fatal tiger attack at the SF Zoo.

According to Tartine workers who spoke to publications like Mission Local and the Chron, the rapidly-growing company’s staff is struggling under unexpected cuts to hours; low pay (many bakery employees say that are only paid San Francisco’s minimum wage of $ 15.59 per hour, an arguably unsustainable rate in one of the most expensive cities in the world); and insufficient health care benefits. Hence the organization effort, an attempt to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the same guild that welcomed the workers of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company last year.

On Thursday, February 6, a letter signed by 141 Tartine workers was delivered to four Tartine locations: Tartine Bakery’s first location at Guerrero and 18th streets, the Mission’s Tartine Manufactory, its new Inner Sunset location, and its Berkeley bakery and cafe. In the letter (which can be read in full here), the workers wrote that “we hope and trust that Tartine will respect our decision to form our union and recognize us. If Tartine refuses to recognize our union and collectively bargain with us, we will file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.”

When contacted by Eater SF at the time of the letter’s announcement, Tartine said via statement that the letter “deserves a thoughtful and thorough answer” and that its leadership team leadership team would “respond to the letter more formally by Monday.” But when that response came, it wasn’t sent from a Tartine address. Instead it was Singer, whose PR firm’s client list is notably short of food industry names, who distributed the letter sent to Tartine’s aspiring union members to members of the media and other interested parties.

Folks who follow San Francisco news and politics immediately noted Tartine’s choice to work with Singer, and many decried the move.

Singer (who as of publication time has not responded to Eater SF’s request for comment) is an interesting pick for Tartine, as — as noted by the Twitter users above — Singer’s often in the middle of contentious battles like the city of San Bruno’s fight against PG&E, a fight against an Embarcadero-area homeless navigation center, works with controversial clients enough to be monikered the region’s “Master of Disaster,” and has been accused of underhanded tricks and unfair play in defense of clients like the San Francisco Zoo, which hired Singer after one of its tigers escaped its pen and killed a teenage boy. In recent memory, Singer’s only restaurant-related client appears to be Noosh, the popular Middle Eastern restaurant that abruptly fired its high-profile chefs.

Tartine management’s response to its workers, however, makes it more apparent why they might need to work with someone familiar with tricky situations. According to the letter (which is available in full below), “we think the only fair thing to do is decline the union’s request” to do what’s called a “card check,” a process in which employees provide signed statements (the “cards”) that announce that they support the formation of a union.

According to Tartine management, they’re concerned that “there is already some bullying and a lot of misinformation being spread on the internet and on social media about Tartine, your working conditions and most importantly, what can happen if we have a union at Tartine,” hence the need to delay the effort until staffers have “ample time to become fully informed before any vote is initiated.” Eater SF contacted Tartine for examples of the online bullying and misinformation referenced in the letter, but have not received a response as of publication time.

Employees are also warned that ongoing efforts to organize — which might include public demonstrations — could put off guests. “If these tactics upset our customers, it will hurt Tartine’s business and could possibly have an impact on your work opportunities as a result.”

Given local leaders’ refusal to cross picket lines, it’s true: The bakeries’ foot traffic could take a hit if management’s refusal to recognize the union inspires public demonstrations. (Several current members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors have made a name for themselves as supporters of organization efforts, to the point that Supes Matt Haney, Gordon Mar, and Ahsha Safaí were arrested last November during a pro-worker protest at SFO last fall.)

The ball in now in the nascent Tartine Union’s court, with workers — as promised — filing for an election through the NLRB on Monday. The election will likely be held in March, which could make for a tense few months inside the bakery. Texting with the Chron, Berkeley Tartine barista and union supporter Matthew Torres expressed wishes for the best. “I hope that Tartine and their hired consultants will act in good faith during this process,” he said, “as the ILWU has for 82 years.”

Here’s Tartine management’s full response letter to its workforce

Dear Tartine Team Members,

As promised, we have spent the weekend thinking hard about the union’s demand that Tartine recognize the Longshoremen’s union (known as the ILWU) through what’s known as a “card check” process rather than allowing each Tartine employee to have the chance to vote by secret ballot in a government supervised election. As we are new to this whole process, we are educating ourselves about what our decision would mean to you and your future working relationship with Tartine Bakery and potentially the future of Tartine.

We have learned that each of you has a federally protected legal right to cast a vote on unionizing Tartine in a secret ballot election sponsored and run by the National Labor Relations Board and not be pressured by those that may want the union. Importantly, the law also protects your legal right to change your mind and vote as you wish, even if you may have signed an ILWU union membership card.

Bringing ILWU to Tartine has important long-term consequences for the company and you. If we accept the card check process proposed by the union, it would mean that the union issue would be decided solely by those who have already signed union membership cards without hearing from the founders of Tartine and many other team members that feel strongly about this issue. We think the only fair thing to do is decline the union’s request. By doing so, Tartine will be ensuring that every Tartine employee to have an equal say on the issue and to consider changing their mind, as the law provides.

The news accounts have quoted the union as saying that this organizing effort has been going on for nearly a year. We’ve only heard about it recently, and more formally when the union’s letters were delivered to the stores last week. The union’s second letter gave us a deadline of 3:00 pm today before they are going to rush down to the NLRB to initiate an election and begin engaging in “conflict” with Tartine. In our opinion, there is absolutely no need to rush through something so important. If the union and its supporters truly care about your welfare and Tartine, let them show it by providing Tartine employees with the respect of having ample time to become fully informed before any vote is initiated. Ask yourself: why they would be in such a hurry and be against us sharing our personal views and important information before a decision is made?

We are concerned that they mentioned in the second letter that there will be conflict at Tartine if we do not agree today to their demand for immediate recognition through a card check. Using such threats of conflict is not how we communicate with each other. And, it only stands to reason that if these tactics upset our customers, it will hurt Tartine’s business and could possibly have an impact on your work opportunities as a result. There are many people that want to insert themselves into the middle of this issue for political purposes, but we are all the stakeholders in Tartine as co-workers and simply as people working together as a team.

In addition, several letter signers have told us they felt pressured to sign and never intended that their signing a union card would be used as the equivalent of a binding “vote” to unionize Tartine before our opinions are shared with you and you are fully informed. These employees also said that they still have many questions about whether being part of a union would be the right thing for them and Tartine and that others feel the same way, despite what appears on social media. We would ask that you hear their voices, many of whom understand and believe in what Tartine stands for.

Sadly, in just a few days there is already some bullying and a lot of misinformation being spread on the internet and on social media about Tartine, your working conditions and most importantly, what can happen if we have a union at Tartine. This is an example of how the union and its supporters will attempt to tarnish Tartine’s reputation if they do not get what they want. This is incredibly unfair, and this approach is not good for our business and the security that comes with our continued success. As the founders of Tartine we have dedicated ourselves to not only our craft but the education and development of the people who work in Tartine. We have a 20-year history of this effort.

With so much to know before you cast any vote, we have hired a team of expert consultants to teach us and you about your legal rights and your obligations if you were to become a union member. We will begin that process by holding a Town Hall meeting at each store this week where we can begin a respectful two-way conversation with you about this issue and where you can ask questions. Just like the ILWU is guiding and educating you on their views on what this means, we too need help in navigating the rules of the National Labor Relations Act since we are not labor attorneys, but rather we are bakers and small business people It’s only fair.

In the meantime, we ask for your patience in hearing our side. We know that many have characterized Tartine as some huge expanding company that does not value and cherish its people and its roots in San Francisco. This cannot be further from the truth and we want a chance to respond to these mischaracterizations and falsehoods. We also are asking the ILWU to respect the right of every Tartine employee to become fully informed about the process before initiating any vote.

Liz, Chad & Chris

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